Harvard Theatre Collection

The Collections

Overview of the Harvard Theatre Collection

The Harvard Theatre Collection, which was founded in 1901 through the efforts of Prof. George Pierce Baker, was the first collection of its kind to be established in this country, and it stands as one of the largest performing arts collections in the world, the oldest theatre collection in the world of international significance. A department of the Houghton Library, the rare book and manuscript library of the Harvard College Library, the Theatre Collection is located on the main floor of the Nathan Marsh Pusey Library, which is situated in Harvard Yard adjacent to Widener Library. The Harvard Theatre Collection’s offices and the Edward Sheldon Exhibition Galleries are open from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on weekdays. Reader access to HTC collections is available through the Houghton Library Reading Room.

The Harvard Theatre Collection includes documentary material pertaining to the history of the performing arts, including the fields of theater, dance and ballet, and opera and musical theater, as well as many forms of popular entertainment, such as magic and conjuring, music hall and variety, pantomime and extravaganza, puppetry, toy theater, circuses and menageries, fairgrounds, pageants and outdoor drama, festivals and spectacles, film, and minstrelsy.

It also includes large numbers of rare books, manuscripts, prompt books, letters, contracts and documents, musical scores, original scene and costume designs, portraits, drawings, engravings and prints, caricatures, albums and extra-illustrated books, and audio and visual recordings, together with vast collections of programs and playbills, posters, play texts and libretti, engravings and prints, photographs, and sheet music, as well as figurines, medals and tokens, tickets and passes, souvenirs, personal artifacts and memorabilia, and extensive files of clippings, articles and pamphlets. The collection also includes a large number of archives of personal and organizational papers, which preserve the legacies of many significant figures and institutions in the performing arts.

The facilities and services of the reading room are freely available to all researchers, regardless of their institutional affiliations; it is always highly advisable to make an appointment in advance, however. Reproduction services are provided through the Harvard College Library, subject to the curator’s approval. Harvard's library catalogues are freely available online.

The Theatre Collection presents several exhibitions annually, drawing on its permanent holdings. The Edward Sheldon Exhibition Rooms are open to the public without charge. Note cards, posters, and exhibition checklists are available for purchase in the Reading Room or by mail.

Each year the Theatre Collection sponsors four month-long visiting fellowships for research in theater and dance history.

Primarily through the generosity of those who have endowed acquisition funds and who have contributed valuable material, the Harvard Theatre Collection continues to grow actively.

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Existing Strengths of the Collection

Since the time of its formation a century ago, the Harvard Theatre Collection has had a broad scope but certain general areas of particular strength, based both on physical format and subject. Among these areas are the following:

  • Play texts of all dramatic and theatrical literature, including manuscripts, acting editions, and promptbooks (see more on the Shakespeare Promptbooks Collection)
  • Original manuscripts, letters, legal agreements, and other documents
  • Original works of art related to performance, including portraits, stage scenes, and stage and costume designs
  • Historical theatrical literature, including biographies, histories, and other books and pamphlets about theatre and the performing arts
  • Playbills, programs, posters, tickets, souvenirs, clippings, and other printed material that results from performance
  • Visual material such as photographs and engravings showing performers, scenes from theatrical works, theatre buildings, etc. (see more on the Angus McBean Photographic Archive)

As the collection developed through significant donations and purchases, the following additional areas of strength have also characterized the collection: historical ballet and dance; Russian ballet; American ballet and modern dance; visual material; archival collections of theatrical production organizations, theatres, dramatic authors, and actors; collections of original art work by specific designers, artists, and photographers; Asian masks and puppets; and international theatre, particularly of Western Europe and Russia.

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Local History

Special consideration has always been given to theatrical material that has a local connection. The Theatre Collection is well established as the "collection of record" for theatre in Boston and New England, and already houses archives of a number of student theatrical organizations (such as the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club and the Hasty Pudding Theatricals), local institutions founded from within the Harvard community (such as the Poets' Theatre), affiliated producing companies (such as the American Repertory Theatre), the work of many Harvard alumni in the performing arts, and the records of many historical Boston-area theatres and performing organizations.

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Modern Books and Periodicals

The Theatre Collection collects certain modern books and periodicals, but since the material in the collection does not circulate and may not be removed from the reading room, it does not represent the principal collection of modern books on the performing arts. The modern books and reference books in the Theatre Collection are selected for their usefulness to researchers and the library staff in conjunction with the historical material in the collections.

In general, the Theatre Collection's modern books on the performing arts fall into the following categories:

  • Contemporary (i.e., "early," authoritative) editions of modern drama
  • Modern scholarly editions or facsimiles of play-texts of all kinds
  • Books that supplement the collections of rare material for the use of researchers and staff
  • Primary reference sources, such as encyclopedias, directories, and catalogues
  • Books that seem, for any of a number of reasons, destined to become rare or endangered in the future

The general collections of Widener Library, Lamont Library, and at Harvard Depository, form much more comprehensive collections that are acquired for the purposes of study and teaching. By contrast, it is frequently not in readers' interest for books to be stored in closed stacks where they cannot be browsed, or in collections with limited hours of access, where books are not available for circulation, and where photocopying services are limited.

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Audio and Visual Material

The Theatre Collection collects certain audio and visual media that are related to its holdings. Mainly these consist of studio or live recordings of stage works, or films based on stage productions of plays, operas, ballets, or other forms of stage performance other than non-theatrical concert or popular music. Some material represents unique archival recordings whose use may be restricted.

These recordings may be used within the Theatre Collection's reading room, condition permitting, but they are not lent or circulated. Some of this material cannot be played, but is preserved for its value as historical documentation and as documentary artifacts. Most audio and visual recordings are found in other collections, such as the Morse Media Library and the Loeb Music Library.

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Out-of-Scope Categories

It is impossible and inadvisable to make any categorical statement concerning subjects or formats that are outside the scope of the Theatre Collection. By its nature it is a varied and eclectic collection, and new avenues are suggested by what becomes available in the marketplace or in the form of offered donations, as well as current research interests or evolving institutional priorities. However, the following areas are, in general, outside the scope or collecting policy of the collection:

  • Modern books on theatrical subjects, except copies of particular scarcity or value, or which complement historical material in the Theatre Collection
  • Modern books on the performing arts intended for a juvenile reader or school use
  • Modern books on the history of non-theatrical music, whether popular or concert music (other than popular printed sheet music)
  • Musical scores of non-theatrical works (other than popular printed sheet music, a long-standing strength of the collection)
  • Modern books on the practice or theory of stagecraft, acting, teaching, or other subjects related to pedagogy of the performing arts
  • Modern books on theatrical criticism, theory, and analysis, other than selected archives of papers of writers or critics
  • Modern books about student, juvenile, or amateur theatre, other than selected archives
  • Modern plays written specifically for student, juvenile, or amateur performance
  • Film prints, other than items that happen to form a part of a theatrical archive, and as distinct from documentation of the history of film
  • Recordings of broadcast and recorded performances (e.g., radio, television, and film), except where there may be some connection with the live theatre as well
  • Sports
  • Fashion
  • Scrapbooks or albums, unless of exceptional historical interest
  • Photocopies, reproductions, or archives of research papers, unless of exceptional significance and broad research value
  • Actual costumes, stage sets, curtains, backdrops, machinery, or large stage properties, other than stage set models (whose quantity is limited by considerations of space)
  • Literary material from certain non-Western cultures for which there are culturally-centered collections at Harvard that are better able to offer cataloguing and scholarly support (e.g., Asian material, Judaica)
  • Material that is damaged, incomplete, or in poor condition, or which requires extensive conservation

However, there are existing exceptions in each of these categories, and it is possible that desireable material will be offered in the future that would be considered to strengthen or complement these holdings.

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Searching the Harvard Theatre Collection

If you are specifically looking for materials in this collection: in HOLLIS Classic (Harvard's online catalog) Expanded Search you can limit your search to Location = Theatre Collection; in OASIS (Online Archival Search Information System) in Quick Search, you can type “Harvard Theatre Collection” (including quotation marks); in VIA (Visual Information Access), in Repository, you can enter Harvard Theatre Collection. 

Note that in addition to material catalogued in HOLLIS Classic, OASIS, and VIA, the Theatre Collection houses numerous series of ephemera, prints, playbills, sheet music, clippings, designs, manuscripts, and photographs that can only be searched directly by Houghton Library staff.  Items in these various series may be arranged by personal name, production title, theatre, subject: typically, the more details the reader can provide, the more productive our search will be. 

For more complete guidance on locating materials in the Harvard theatre collection, please go to The Harvard Theatre Collection: A Guide for Researchers.

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